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Lead detective on Heeringa case testifies

Emma Nicolas/WZZM-TV • May 15, 2018 at 8:17 PM

MUSKEGON — As publicity into the mysterious disappearance of Jessica Heeringa began to dominate headlines more than five years ago, Norton Shores police found themselves inundated with tips.

More than 2,000 tips were received and vetted, the lead detective testified Tuesday in the trial of 48-year-old Jeffrey Willis, who is accused in the abduction and murder of the 25-year-old mother of one.

"I didn't know how big it was going to get," Lt. Michael Kasher of the Norton Shores Police Department said of the case.

The intensely watched trial, which got underway last week, is winding down and could go to jurors Wednesday.

Six witnesses testified Tuesday, including Kasher. He was the last to testify before Muskegon County Circuit Judge William Marietti ended the day’s proceedings at 4 p.m. because a juror became ill.

Kasher took the stand at about 2:30 p.m. and addressed several aspects of the investigation that came under scrutiny, including how it was handled starting about a half-hour after Heeringa went missing on April 26, 2013.

Kasher testified that by 6 a.m. April 27, 2013, he realized that something serious had happened. By midday, 20 or so people from the Michigan State Police and the Muskegon County Sheriff's Department were helping out, he said.

The Norton Shores Police Department’s tip line was inundated days after Heeringa's disappearance; Kasher said they had to rely on a different state police computer system to help keep pace.

Around 2,200 tips were logged, and Kasher said police worked to investigate each of them. Each tip received was assigned a number and was rated on its level of importance before being assigned to an officer.

By September 2013, most of the assisting officers had to return to their own departments. Kasher testified that he remained dedicated to the case. He said of the hundreds of people interviewed, only 27 provided any sort of lead.

When the department first identified the vehicle in question as a silver minivan, Kasher said the make and model did not matter.

"If anyone wants to blame the Town & Country thing on someone, you can blame it on me," he said. "I didn't know a lot about vans. I was just trying to put a timeline together."

Norton Shores police were initially looking for a silver Chrysler Town & Country, which they later determined was actually a Dodge Grand Caravan. That determination was made with the assistance of experts, including Lawrence Brooks of Chrysler-Fiat, who also testified Tuesday. The change in the vehicle description raised questions in the minds of the public at the time, according to testimony.

Ryan Heethuis, a U.S. Secret Service agent, who assisted with both the Heeringa and Rebekah Bletsch investigations, also testified Tuesday. Heethuis said he runs a “proof of life” test through their systems looking for signs of Heeringa to this day.

During every cross-examination, defense attorney Fred Johnson turned to Willis in between questions. As he has throughout most days of testimony, Willis listened intently, often leaning toward the witness, his hands switching between a highlighter and a pen as he took to his notes and documents. His demeanor remained light throughout the day, laughing when a joke was made and smirking at his attorney in between whispers.

When Michigan State Police Detective Zachary Sparks took the stand to testify about evidence collected during a search warrant, it appeared to be Willis directing the questions. Sparks testified that he found nearly a dozen different emptied bleach products in the basement of Willis' late grandfather's home at 3038 Bailey St. Also found at the home, primarily used by Willis after his grandfather's death, was a list including clothing items, but also zip ties, lube and needles.

In cross-examination, Johnson consulted Willis before asking if it was possible this list was just a packing list for one of Willis' snowmobiling trips, providing the idea that the lube was actually lube for a snowmobile.

It's been a peculiar trial — namely due to the fact that Heeringa's body is still missing and her family remains absent from the courtroom. Meanwhile, the family has continued to vocalize their opinion via a public Facebook page dedicated to finding Jessica. Friends of the family say the only thing that will bring them closure is finding her.

The trial is expected to reconvene at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

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